Tzu Hsi, also known as Empress Orchid, who ruled as empress of China in name or in fact for decades around the turn of the 20th century, was reviled in the Western press as the dragon lady and largely hated in her own country for bringing war, uncertainty, foreign influence and strife to her people. The Last Empress is Anchee Min's second retelling (after 2004's Empress Orchid) of Orchid's tale. The first book told of her arrival in the Forbidden City as one of hundreds of concubines to emperor Hsien Feng; her affair with the emperor and the birth of their son, which elevated her to the title of empress; and her husband's death while the court was in exile during the Opium Wars. This novel picks up the story with Orchid trying to raise her son to become the emperor while running the country along with her co-regent, Empress Nuharoo, who had been Hsien Feng's principal wife. She faces mounting national debt, the bullying influence of several foreign powers, instability from within her country and rumors that she is nothing more than a power- and sex-crazed maniac who would think nothing of having family members (including her son) killed in order to keep her grip on power.
Instead of painting Orchid as the dragon lady, The Last Empress portrays her as a woman swept up in situations beyond her control, who would have liked nothing more than to retire to her gardens, but who was forced by history to stay in power and do what she thought was best for her family and her country, often at great personal sacrifice.
This sad and engaging tale sheds light on events that few people know about the history of China. Min spent years researching her subject and even smuggled documents out of the Forbidden City to ensure that her book, though fiction, would be told with a sense of truth about the characters who shaped the history of China and the world.
Sarah E. White is a freelance writer living in Arkansas.